Eisenberg: Ravens Have Long Been an NFL Leader in Black Opportunity

Left: QB Lamar Jackson; Right: Ozzie Newsome

The Steve Bisciotti-led social justice video the Ravens put out earlier this month left no doubt about their position on the Black Lives Matter movement and racial inequality in America.

They're leading proponents for understanding and change. Many NFL players and other teams are also establishing that position, but few have done so as forcefully as the Ravens, with their owner out front.

It's a galvanizing moment for the organization, but to be clear, the Ravens long ago established a broad-minded orientation on providing opportunities for people of color.

It's still an issue in the NFL. Although the player population is roughly 70 percent African-American, there are currently just two Black general managers and four head coaches of color, matching a 17-year low. And only in the past decade have Black quarterbacks such as Lamar Jackson truly made inroads.

Overlooked in the celebration of Jackson's magical performance in 2019 was the fact that he was just the third African-American quarterback to win the league MVP award outright. The first was Cam Newton just five years ago, in 2015 – 95 years after the NFL originated.

More than two dozen white quarterbacks won the MVP award outright before a Black quarterback finally did. (Note: Steve McNair shared the award with Peyton Manning in 2003.)

Not to pick on the NFL, but that inequity exemplifies how systemic racism can take seed and grow in any environment.

But the Ravens have always fought against it. Period.

When Art Modell brought the franchise to Baltimore in 1996, he gave Ozzie Newsome the title of vice-president of player personnel. It was the first time in NFL history that a franchise had put a person of color in charge of the draft and shaping the roster.

The organization Newsome put together included two other African-American groundbreakers – James Harris as pro personnel director and Marvin Lewis as defensive coordinator. Harris eventually ran another team (Jaguars) and Lewis became the sixth full-time Black head coach in NFL history when the Bengals hired him in 2003.

Newsome, as you know, drafted future Hall of Famers with his first two picks and built a Super Bowl winner in five years. Many fans shrugged when the Ravens officially gave him the title of general manager in 2002, as he was already carrying out those duties, but the promotion was nothing to shrug about. He was the league's first African-American GM.

Although Newsome's decision-making was always strictly about football, his handling of just the quarterback position alone illustrates what can happen when a person of color receives an opportunity. A different perspective can produce more opportunities for others.

Black quarterbacks have faced a long, hard road in the NFL. Their prospects are better now in the wake of the success of Jackson, Newton, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and others in the past decade, but until then, opportunities were hard-won and often fleeting.

Not until 2017 had all 32 Super Bowl-era teams started a Black quarterback in a game at least once. There are teams that didn't start a Black quarterback during the first half-century of their existence. A few went well beyond a half-century.

It's surprising and disappointing to see just how long that pattern of denied opportunity persisted, but make no mistake, the Ravens played no part in it.

They've only been around a quarter-century, but they've started eight Black quarterbacks in games – Randall Cunningham, Tony Banks, Jeff Blake, Anthony Wright, Steve McNair, Troy Smith, Robert Griffin III and Jackson. Two more, Wally Richardson and Tyrod Taylor, received playing time as backups.

Just as they're out front now on the issue of social justice reform, the Ravens have long been out front in banging on the door of opportunity for African-American quarterbacks.

It's a testament to the organization's open-mindedness, which filters down from those in charge, and it's especially appropriate in that the population of the Ravens' hometown is more than 60 percent African-American. I'm pretty sure the Ravens' fan base has a higher percentage of minority fans compared to those of many teams.

They should be leaders on social justice reform and they are leaders, as the powerful video made clear. Just understand that it's part of a continuum, a history of progressive thinking that has marked the organization from the outset of its days in Baltimore.

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